BRUSSELS, Belgium — A Milan court on Monday convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for paying for underage sex and abusing his power to protect the alleged teenage prostitute known as Ruby Heartstealer.
Although a panel of three female judges imposed a 7-year prison sentence on the media magnate, he's unlikely to go to jail given the lengthy appeals process his lawyers are expected to launch.
It's also unclear whether the judgment — and an accompanying life-long ban on holding public office — will end Berlusconi's political career.
Although many had written him off after he was convicted for tax fraud in October and sentenced to four years, he still managed to lead his conservative People of Freedom (PdL) party back into government after a strong showing in February's elections.
The ban on political office will also probably be suspended during the appeal process, which is expected to drag on for up to three years.
Pro- and anti-Berlusconi demonstrators clashed verbally outside the courtroom as the judges deliberated for seven hours before announcing the verdict.
Berlusconi routinely blames his legal woes on a conspiracy of left-wingers who have infiltrated the judiciary, and many voters seem to accept his argument.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, in an apparent reference to his client's frequent allegations that judges in his hometown are biased against him, told the ANSA news agency that ''this judgment defies logic, it's impossible to hold the trial in Milan.”
However, the three-time prime minister’s legal tribulations could undermine Italy's fragile coalition government, in which the PdL is a junior partner of the center-left Democratic Party.
Senior PdL politicians have threatened to bring down the government if the appeals process ends with Berlusconi’s being sent to jail or banned from holding public office.
However, a senior PdL official said Monday's verdict will not be the trigger for a government crisis.
"The government is not at risk because of Berlusconi's judicial affairs," Francesco Nitto, president of the Senate Justice Commission was quoted telling ANSA. "If there is a conviction, the leader of the PdL will do what he has said he will do — he'll behave in a responsible way."
Center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta is said to be exasperated with the threats to the government from PdL members and is expected to hold meetings with Berlusconi and other party leaders over the coming days.
The so-called Rubygate case involving Moroccan-born nightclub dancer Karima el Mahroug, aka Ruby Heartstealer, has thrown the spotlight on Berlusconi's notorious so-called bunga-bunga parties. El Mahroug is alleged to have received money from Berlusconi in exchange for sex in 2010 when she was 17.
Berlusconi and El Mahroug deny having sex. The billionaire says the soirees organized at his home involved dinners with music and dancing rather than alleged orgies.
The prosecution claimed El Mahroug received $5.9 million from Berlusconi and that he pressured Milan police officers to release her after an arrest on suspicion of theft in 2010. Berlusconi is alleged to have told officers she was the niece of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.